by Adele Corrigan
After deciding on our theme, Rhône vs Rhône Rangers as our next contrast series, Mike and I were brainstorming of a way to make things a little more interesting. We decided to put a little personal competition into it. I was going to choose the wines from the new world, and he was going to choose the wines from the old world. Of course, during these tastings, there’s the comparing and contrasting of the wines that happens as people taste, but Mike and I decided to see who could find the better wines to showcase from our designated regions. There’s hundreds of wines that could be used for this event. The true test would be to see who can find the best examples of our chosen regions to showcase in the tasting.
So the competition was set and the rules were as follows: Mike was to choose 3 wines from the Rhône and I was to choose 3 wines from California that were “Rhône inspired.” The wines could be red or white, and they had to be under $30. I knew Mike had the upper hand in this. Wines from the Rhône are highly respected and sought after. They consistently demand the highest dollar and have been made for hundreds of years. I mean, it’s the Rhône river valley, home of iconic chateauneuf-de-pape region, mind blowing amazing syrah from Cornas, Hermitage, and the other northern appellations. All wine lovers idolize a great bottle of Cote Rotie.
I generally shy away from any wine from the new world, but I was ready to take the challenge. In the past month, I tasted with countless wine reps trying to find the best examples of Rhône inspired red wines to show. Rhone inspired reds are mainly comprised of Grenache and syrah, and whites are of viognier or marsanne and rousanne. I wanted to make a statement and show all reds. I wanted the wines to have a sense of place and tell a story of how and why they deserved to be compared and contrasted against Mike’s choices from the grapes’ birthplace in France.
I asked our reps to bring what they felt was the best their portfolios had to offer. And I tasted, and tasted, and tasted. Honestly, there was a lot of crap out there. My lips were stained purple with all of the over extracted, high alcohol California fruit bombs of Grenache and syrah blends. But through all of that, I found a few producers that strive for lower alcohol, harvest slightly under ripe, practice biodynamic principles, and met my personal qualifications for the tasting.
The first wine I selected was Tablas Creek, because they are one of the original Rhône rangers. Tablas Creek and a group of other wine makers got together in the 80s to promote American wine makers using Rhône varietals (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Viognier, etc..) in their wines. They called themselves the Rhône Rangers, as a pun on the Lone Ranger. Tablas Creek’s estate, owned by the famous Perrin family also known as the owners of Chateau Beaucastel (famous for using all 13 permitted varietals in their Chateauneuf du pape), brought clippings from their French estate and planted them in California. The soil type under their vineyards in Paso Robles was found to be extremely similar to the Perrin Families in France. The wine was fruit driven and focused; I was pretty pleased with this classic example.
The second was from Donkey and Goat. This is a husband and wife team that met while studying wine in France. Their name comes from the donkey and the goat that used to keep each other company while working on the steep slopes of the Rhône River Valley. The wines they make are all biodynamic and natural. This couple is all about minimal interference in the vineyard and wine making process. They even crush their grapes with their feet. This wine was named “Five Thirteen” because they used 5 of the thirteen permitted grapes of chateauneuf du pape. This wine has a very pronounced yeasty, leesy, sour red fruit on the nose and a higher than anticipated amount of acidity on the palate. The wine was very thought provoking and every sip seemed to bring out new layers in the wine. I’ve been a fan of Donkey and Goat for a while and support their biodynamic views on viticultural practices.
The last wine is a knock-out example of new world syrah, called Windgap. It is a surprising 12.5% abv, despite being grown in sunny California amongst the other high alcohol syrahs. The reason for this is the wine maker grows his grapes on this corridor of the Sonoma coast about 10 miles from the Pacific that has this intense wind that blows through. The result is a cooler climate at night and provides the grapes with relief from the warm sunny days. In the wine geek world, this is known as a diurnal shift (great for even ripening of grapes). Windgap also chooses to harvest their syrah a bit under ripe. The first year winemaker Pax Mahle did this, he received a lot of negative feedback from the other wine makers in the area. But once the other wine makers tasted his syrah in a blind tasting, they were convinced! This wine has the minerality and balance of a northern Rhône syrah; it’s absolutely delicious.
With my 3 wines were set, I was excited and the tasting was about to begin. I glance over to look at the wines Mike chose to represent the Rhone and I see something alarming. It’s a 2002 Cote-Rotie. Where did he find that for such a good deal? And then it dawns on me… he’s cheating! There’s no way that wine is under $30. And sure enough it’s double that… $65! And then I see his next wine, it’s a Chateauneuf du Pape. There’s no way that one is under $30 either. And guess what, it’s not! All of the anticipation, sleepless nights, bad tastings, and trash- talking came down to this one night, and he’s cheating. So I decide to pour myself a glass of wine and am prepared to concede. There’s no way my wines can hold up to those iconic French blockbusters. As the tasting goes on, I felt like people were very receptive to the wines. The Windgap was tasting so good. I think I surprised a lot of people with that. All and all it was a very successful event, and people were happy. As the end of the tasting nears, we count the votes and Mike’s wines win by 2 lousy votes. Go figure. Till next time!